October 29, 2009

Israel articulated three main objectives when it started its offensive against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip last winter: stop the rocket fire into southern Israel, weaken the security infrastructure of Hamas in Gaza, and restore the deterrence that it felt had been lost after enduring years of rocket attacks, as well as the kidnapping of its soldier, Gilad Shalit.

  The war successfully achieved those goals. But it also had an unintended result that has become a stumbling block in the effort to renew peace negotiations between Israel, the United States, and the Palestinian Authority: the report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, otherwise known as The Goldstone Report after its chair, South African Judge Richard Goldstone.

The report, commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), is hardly the first UN effort to focus on alleged abuses by Israel.  In fact, since it was established two years ago, the UNHRC has passed almost as many resolutions against Israel as it has against every other country in the world combined.  These facts are what led Mary Robinson, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to refuse an appointment as head of the Gaza fact-finding mission, stating that the UNHRC was “guided not by human rights but by politics.”  Israel refused to cooperate with the Goldstone investigation, claiming that the mandate was biased by an a priori assumption that Israel had committed war crimes.  Goldstone initially refused the post over the same concerns, only agreeing to head the mission after it changed its mandate to include investigations of human rights violations by Hamas as well.

The Israeli government was not the only one whose image was damaged due to the report.  The Palestinian Authority initially urged UNHRC members to refer the issue to the powerful UN Security Council, which could in theory ask the International Criminal Court to open a war crimes prosecution.  The Obama administration, which had prioritized restarting the peace process, was already facing an uphill battle because of its failure to get the the Israelis to commit to a settlement freeze or to get Arab states to make even token gestures of reconciliation as incentives for the Israelis.  Obama was not eager to place another stumbling block in front of its Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, in the form of a UN battle against Israel.

The Palestinian Authority, whose entire legitimacy is based upon the idea that negotiations with Israel can lead to a Palestinian state, and which was encouraged by Obama’s active involvement, was also not keen on the idea of giving Netanyahu more excuses to delay negotiations.  Besides, Fatah’s memory of Hamas’ Gaza coup is still fresh, and the PA leadership in Ramallah shed few tears for Hamas leaders during the war.  Therefore, the Palestinian representative supported deferring discussion of the Goldstone report until March.  Hamas seized the opportunity to paint PA president Mahmoud Abbas as an Israeli and American collaborator, and Abbas, already in a precarious position, quickly reversed course amid outrage from the Palestinian public, recommending immediate action on the Goldstone Report.

The political side effects of the Goldstone Report seem to be decisively negative for the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority.  For American and Palestinian administrations eager to resume negotiations leading to a Palestinian state, the debacle of the UN vote on Goldstone has resulted in a weakened Abbas, and a renewed spotlight on alleged Israeli war crimes that will further complicate Mitchell’s mission to pressure both sides to move the peace process forward.

From Israel’s (and perhaps America’s) point of view, the Goldstone report represents a dangerous institutionalization of legal constraints that would cripple the ability to fight terrorism.  Already some are claiming the report’s conclusions make withdrawals from the West Bank impossible, since if Israel came under rocket attack from that same territory, it would now be severely limited in its ability to put a stop to it.

For some human rights activists, the report represents a positive step in holding governments accountable.  However, the report is still a creature of the UNHRC, which remains open to charges of bias due to its overtly political nature.  In fact, even Goldstone himself criticized the latest UNHRC resolution on his own report for deviating from the panel’s own conclusions by calling for an investigation of Israel without mentioning Hamas.  The Bush administration withdrew from the UNHRC because of its bias against Israel and lack of resolve in censuring oppressive states.  Obama announced that the U.S. would rejoin the council, not because it didn’t think there were problems with the council, but precisely because it wanted to fight those problems from within.  The Obama administration must make good on its pledge if the UNHRC wants its reports to be accepted as credible.

A weak Palestinian authority, a right-wing government in Israel, and a Hamas-controlled Gaza strip all present significant obstacles for Obama as he seeks to move the peace process forward.  The Goldstone report is another stumbling block in an already uphill battle.

Etan Schwartz is an intern with the Atlantic Council's Office of External Relations.  He is pursuing an MA in International Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School, with a concentration in Middle East and International Security.  

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